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Estate Planning Blog

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guardianships & Conservatorships

Guardianships & Conservatorships and How to Avoid Them

If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship or a conservatorship whereby a guardian would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and conservators make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship or a conservatorship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian and/or conservator. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship and/or conservatorship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian and/or conservator usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships and conservatorships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a conservatorship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.  
 


Friday, October 4, 2013

Gun Trusts

Gun Trusts: Targeted Estate Planning

If you have a gun collection, your estate plan may be missing the mark if it fails to include a specially drafted gun trust. The typical estate plan provides for tax saving strategies, probate avoidance and beneficiary designation of various assets. However, some assets pose additional issues that must be carefully addressed to avoid unintended consequences in the future. Firearms, in particular, are regulated under federal and state laws and demand careful attention from your estate planning attorney.

Your gun collection may include weapons used for sport, self-defense or investment purposes. America’s long history with firearms means your collection may include family heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Unlike simple bank account, real property or vehicle ownership changes, transfers of many firearms and accessories are restricted and subject to very specific requirements. For example, under Title II of the National Firearms Act (NFA), the transfer of short-barreled shotguns and rifles, silencers, automatic weapons and certain other “destructive devices” require the approval of your local Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) and a federal tax stamp. To keep your gun collection in your family, you must ensure that all transfers comply with the National Firearms Act, as well as state laws where you and your beneficiaries reside.

So how do you ensure your firearms seamlessly transfer to your loved ones after you pass on?

By establishing a revocable living “gun trust,” which holds only your firearm collection, you can retain ownership and control of your collection during your lifetime while providing for the disposition of your guns to your intended beneficiaries. During your lifetime, you remain the trustee and beneficiary of the gun trust, and appoint a successor trustee and lifetime and remainder beneficiaries. Because the trust is revocable, you are free to make changes or revoke it at any time.

As with most living trusts, a gun trust enables you to provide detailed instructions regarding the disposition of your assets upon your death. But given the unique challenges associated with transferring firearm ownership, your gun trust is most valuable in helping expedite the transfer of a firearm that is restricted under the National Firearms Act. If you use a gun trust to own and transfer Title II firearms, you are not required to obtain the approval of your local CLEO; the transfer application may be sent directly to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

NFA-restricted firearms are not permitted to be transported or handled by any other individual unless the registered owner is present – which can present a problem if the registered owner is deceased. However, when owned by a properly drafted gun trust, these weapons may be legally possessed by the trustee, and any beneficiary may use the firearm under the authority of, or in the presence of, the trustee. This greatly simplifies and expedites the transfer, and saves your beneficiaries from any unintended violations of the National Firearms Act – which can result in steep fines, prison, and forfeiture of all rights to possess or own firearms in the future.

Gun dealers often make trust forms available, but these boilerplate documents typically fail to specifically address the ownership of firearms. A properly drafted gun trust will include guidance or limitations for the successor trustee, to ensure he or she does not inadvertently commit a felony when owning, using or transferring the weapons.
 


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Charitable Giving

Charitable Giving

Many people give to charity during their lives, but unfortunately too few Americans take advantage of the benefits of incorporating charitable giving into their estate plans. By planning ahead, you can save on income and estate taxes, provide a meaningful contribution to the charity of your choice, and even guarantee a steady stream of income throughout your lifetime.

Those who do plan to leave a gift to charity upon their death typically do so by making a simple bequest in a will. However, there are a variety of estate planning tools designed to maximize the benefits of a gift to both the charity and the donor. Donors and their heirs may be better served by incorporating deferred gifts or split-interest gifts, which afford both estate tax and income tax deductions, although for less than the full value of the asset donated.

One of the most common tools is the Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT), which provides the donor or other designated beneficiary the ability to receive income for his or her lifetime, or for a set period of years. At death, or the conclusion of the set period, the “remainder interest” held in the trust is transferred to the charity. The CRT affords the donor a tax deduction based on the calculated remainder interest that will be left to charity. This remainder interest is calculated according to the terms of the trust and the Applicable Federal Rate published monthly by the IRS.

The Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) follows the same basic principle, in reverse. With a CLT, the charity receives the income during the donor’s lifetime, with the remainder interest transferring to the donor’s heirs upon his or her death.

To qualify for tax benefits, both CRTs and CLTs must be established as:

  • A Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT) or a Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT), wherein the income is established at the beginning, as a fixed amount, with no option to make further additions to the trust; or
  • A unitrust which recalculates income as a pre-set percentage of trust assets on an annual basis; which would be either a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT) or a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT).

Another variation is the Net Income Charitable Remainder Unitrust, which provides more flexible payment options for the donor. One advantage to this type of trust is that a shortfall in income one year can be made up the following year.

The Charitable Gift Annuity (CGA) enables the donor to buy an annuity, directly from the charity, which provides guaranteed fixed payments over the donor’s lifetime. As with all annuities, the amount of income provided depends on the donor’s age when the annuity is purchased. The CGA gives donors an immediate income tax deduction, the value of which can be carried forward for up to five years to maximize tax savings.

IRA contributions are also an option through 2011 for donors who are at least 70½ years of age. Donors who meet the age requirement can donate funds in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to charity via a charitable IRA rollover or qualified charitable distribution. The amount of the donation can include the donors’ required minimum distribution (RMD), but may not exceed $100,000. The contribution must be made directly by the trustee of the IRA.

With several ways to incorporate charitable giving into your estate plan, it’s important that you carefully consider the benefits and consequences, taking into account your assets, income and desired tax benefits. A qualified estate planning attorney and financial advisor can help you determine the best arrangement which will most benefit you and your charity of choice.
 


Monday, September 16, 2013

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney?

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney? Or Do I Need Both?

Many people are confused by these two important estate planning documents. It’s important to understand the functions of each and ensure you are fully protected by incorporating both of these documents into your overall estate plan.

A “living will,” often called an advance health care directive, is a legal document setting forth your wishes for end-of-life medical care, in the event you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. The safest way to ensure that your own wishes will determine your future medical care is to execute an advance directive stating what your wishes are. In some states, the advance directive is only operative if you are diagnosed with a terminal condition and life-sustaining treatment merely artificially prolongs the process of dying, or if you are in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

A durable power of attorney for health care, also referred to as a healthcare proxy, is a document in which you name another person to serve as your health care agent. This person is authorized to speak on your behalf in order to consent to – or refuse – medical treatment if your doctor determines that you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. A durable power of attorney for health care can be operative at any time you designate, not just when your condition is terminal.

For maximum protection, it is strongly recommended that you have both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. The power of attorney affords you flexibility, with an agent who can express your wishes and respond accordingly to any changes in your medical condition. Your agent should base his or her decisions on any written wishes you have provided, as well as familiarity with you. The advance directive is necessary to guide health care providers in the event your agent is unavailable. If your agent’s decisions are ever challenged, the advance directive can also serve as evidence that your agent is acting in good faith and in accordance with your wishes.  


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Monday, August 26, 2013

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships as Part of Your Estate Plan

Designed to preserve family businesses for future generations, Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) and Family Limited Liability Companies (FLLCs) can help shelter your assets and reduce overall estate and gift taxes.   FLPs are also utilized as an integral part of business succession planning.

A Family Limited Partnership is typically established by married couples who place assets in the FLP and serve as its general partners. They may then grant limited-partnership interests to their children, of up to 99% of the value of the FLP’s assets. When this occurs, two things happen: a) the value of the partnership interests transferred to the children is deemed to be lower than the respective pro-rata value because of minority and marketability discounts and b) the assets are removed from the general partners’ estates.  This allows a transfer of significant assets to the children at lower valuation which results in reduced estate taxes. The general partners continue to maintain control of the FLP and its assets, even though they may own as little as just 1% of the partnership’s valuation.

Limited partners may receive distributions from the FLP which can serve to transfer additional assets from the older generation to younger beneficiaries at more favorable income tax rates.

How Minority and Marketability Interest Discounts Work

Since limited partners do not have the ability to direct or control the day-to-day operations of the partnership, a minority discount can be applied to reduce the value of the limited partnership interests that are transferred.  Furthermore, because the partnership is a closely-held entity and not publicly-traded, a discount can be applied based upon the lack of marketability of the limited partnership interests.  This allows the older generation to leverage the FLP as a vehicle to transfer more wealth to its beneficiaries, while retaining control of the underlying assets.  

With these significant tax benefits, it’s no surprise that many FLPs have attracted scrutiny from the IRS. Many family partnerships have run into issues with tax authorities due to mistakes or outright abuse. Care must be taken to ensure your FLP is properly established and operated.  Specifically, the IRS may look at the following issues when assessing the viability of the FLP:

  • Whether the establishment of the FLP was created solely for tax mitigation objectives. You stand a better chance of avoiding – or surviving – a challenge from the IRS if you can show a legitimate non-tax-related reason the FLP was created. 
     
  • Whether the partnership functions like a business.  Keep your personal assets out of the FLP. You can reasonably expect to transfer closely held stock or interests in commercial real estate into a Family Limited Partnership. However, personal property such as cars or residences may not fare well against an IRS challenge. Similarly, the FLP’s assets should not be used to pay for any personal expenses. The FLP must be a legitimate business entity operated to fulfill business purposes.
     
  • Whether the valuations are based on objective criteria.  Rather than have a partner or family member determine the valuations or discounts for any assets transferred into the FLP, you should have your FLP professionally appraised. A qualified appraiser has a much better chance of withstanding IRS scrutiny.

An FLP can be a powerful planning tool to enable business owners to transfer their stake to the younger generation, while allowing the senior generation to continue conducting operations and mentoring and grooming the young owners.  However, an FLP can be incredibly complex and should only be established with the help of a qualified team of estate planning attorneys, accountants and appraisers.  


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Medicare vs. Medicaid

Medicare vs. Medicaid: Similarities and Differences

With such similar sounding names, many Americans mistake Medicare and Medicaid programs for one another, or presume the programs are as similar as their names. While both are government-run programs, there are many important differences. Medicare provides senior citizens, the disabled and the blind with medical benefits. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides healthcare benefits for those with little to no income.

Overview of Medicare
Medicare is a public health insurance program for Americans who are 65 or older. The program does not cover long-term care, but can cover payments for certain rehabilitation treatments. For example, if a Medicare patient is admitted to a hospital for at least three days and is subsequently admitted to a skilled nursing facility, Medicare may cover some of those payments. However, Medicare payments for such care and treatment will cease after 100 days.

In summary:

  • Medicare provides health insurance for those aged 65 and older
  • Medicare is regulated under federal law, and is applied uniformly throughout the United States
  • Medicare pays for up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility
  • Medicare pays for hospital care and medically necessary treatments and services
  • Medicare does not pay for long-term care
  • To be eligible for Medicare, you generally must have paid into the system

Overview of Medicaid
Medicaid is a state-run program, funded by both the federal and state governments. Because Medicaid is administered by the state, the requirements and procedures vary across state lines and you must look to the law in your area for specific eligibility rules. The federal government issues Medicaid guidelines, but each state gets to determine how the guidelines will be implemented.

In summary:

  • Medicaid is a health care program based on financial need
  • Medicaid is regulated under state law, which varies from state to state
  • Medicaid will cover long-term care
     

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

Estate Planning: The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

The irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust has proven to be a highly effective estate planning tool for many older Americans. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you and your family. This brief overview is designed to give you a starting point for discussions with your loved ones and legal counsel.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust enables an individual or a married couple to transfer some of their assets into a trust, to hold and manage the assets throughout their lifetime. Upon their deaths, the remainder of the assets will be transferred to the heirs in accordance with the provisions of the trust.

This process is best explained by an example. Let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both retired, own stocks and savings accounts valued at $300,000. Their current living expenses are covered by income from these investments, plus Social Security and their retirement benefits. Should either one of them ever be admitted to a skilled nursing facility, the Smiths likely will not have enough money left over to cover living and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.

Continuing the above example, the Smiths can opt to transfer all or a portion of their investments into a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. Under the terms of the trust, all investment income will continue to be paid to the Smiths during their lifetimes. Should one of them ever need Medicaid coverage for nursing home care, the income would then be paid to the other spouse. Upon the deaths of both spouses, the trust is terminated and the remaining assets are distributed to the Smiths’ children or other heirs as designated in the trust. As long as the Smiths are alive, their assets are protected and they enjoy a continued income stream throughout their lives.

However, the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is not without its pitfalls. Creation of such a trust can result in a period of ineligibility for benefits under the Medicaid program. The length of time varies, according to the value of the assets transferred and the date of the transfer. Following expiration of the ineligibility period, the assets held within the trust are generally protected and will not be factored in when calculating assets for purposes of qualification for Medicaid benefits. Furthermore, transferring assets into an irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust keeps them out of both spouses’ reach for the duration of their lives.

Deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you is a complex process that must take into consideration many factors regarding your assets, income, family structure, overall health, life expectancy, and your wishes regarding how property should be handled after your death. An experienced elder law or Medicaid attorney can help guide you through the decision making process.
 


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Setting Up Your Estate Plan?

Important Issues to Consider When Setting Up Your Estate Plan

Often estate planning focuses on the “big picture” issues, such as who gets what, whether a living trust should be created to avoid probate and tax planning to minimize gift and estate taxes. However, there are many smaller issues, which are just as critical to the success of your overall estate plan. Below are some of the issues that are often overlooked by clients and sometimes their attorneys.

Cash Flow
Is there sufficient cash? Estates incur operating expenses throughout the administration phase. The estate often has to pay state or federal estate taxes, filing fees, living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents, cover regular expenses to maintain assets held in the estate, and various legal expenses associated with settling the estate.

Taxes
How will taxes be paid? Although the estate may be small enough to avoid federal estate taxes, there are other taxes which must be paid. Depending on jurisdiction, the state may impose an estate tax. If the estate is earning income, it must pay income taxes until the estate is fully settled. Income taxes are paid from the liquid assets held in the estate, however estate taxes could be paid by either the estate or from each beneficiary’s inheritance if the underlying assets are liquid.

Assets
What, exactly, is held in the estate? The owner of the estate certainly knows this information, but estate administrators, successor trustees and executors may not have certain information readily available. A notebook or list documenting what major items are owned by the estate should be left for the estate administrator. It should also include locations and identifying information, including serial numbers and account numbers.

Creditors
Your estate can’t be settled until all creditors have been paid. As with your assets, be sure to leave your estate administrator a document listing all creditors and account numbers. Be sure to also include information regarding where your records are kept, in the event there are disputes regarding the amount the creditor claims is owed.

Beneficiary Designations
Some assets are not subject to the terms of a will. Instead, they are transferred directly to a beneficiary according to the instruction made on a beneficiary designation form. Bank accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, retirement plans, IRAs and most motor vehicles departments allow you to designate a beneficiary to inherit the asset upon your death. By doing so, the asset is not included in the probate estate and simply passes to your designated beneficiary by operation of law.

Fund Your Living Trust
Your probate-avoidance living trust will not keep your estate out of the probate court unless you formally transfer your assets into the trust. Only assets which are legally owned by the trust are subject to its terms. Title to your real property, vehicles, investments and other financial accounts should be transferred into the name of your living trust.
 


Monday, July 15, 2013

Veterans’ Non-Service Connected Pension Benefits

Veterans’ Non-Service Connected Pension Benefits

The Veterans’ Administration’s non-service connected pension program can help supplement the income of elderly or disabled veterans. The VA deems any veteran age 65 or older to be permanently and totally disabled. This “disabled” classification entitles senior citizens who are veterans, or their widows, to tax-free pension payments regardless of their actual physical condition, provided they meet the needs-based criteria.

One significant advantage of this program is that, unlike a traditional service-connected pension, there is no requirement that your injury or disability be tied to your time in service. On the other hand, this is a needs-based assistance program, so many veterans may not qualify for benefits.

To qualify for benefits under the program, you must have served on active duty for at least 90 days, and at least one of those days must have been during a time of war. Additionally, you must not have had a dishonorable discharge from the military.

Periods of war time are determined by the U.S. Congress as follows:

  • Mexican Border Period: May 9, 1916 through April 5, 1917, only if you served in Mexico, on its borders or in adjacent waters
  • World War I: April 6th, 1917 through November 11, 1918, or through April 1, 1920 if you served in Russia
  • World War II: December 7, 1941 through December 31, 1946    
  • Korean Conflict: June 27, 1950 through January 31, 1955
  • Vietnam Era: August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1965, or beginning February 28, 1961 you served in Vietnam
  • Persian Gulf War: August 2, 1990 through the present

Once qualifying military service is established, you must also pass the income and asset tests. The VA must determine that your net worth is not enough to adequately support you during your lifetime. Your vehicle and primary residence are not counted when determining your net worth.  The VA generally caps net worth, exclusive of your car and primary residence, at $80,000 for a married veteran, or $40,000 for a single person.

Additionally, your countable income must be lower than the available pension amount. Fortunately, countable income is offset by your unreimbursed, recurring health care costs, including prescriptions, insurance premiums or assisted living expenses.
 


Friday, July 5, 2013

Special Needs Trusts

Self-Settled vs. Third-Party Special Needs Trusts

Special needs trusts allow individuals with disabilities to qualify for need-based government assistance while maintaining access to additional assets which can be used to pay for expenses not covered by such government benefits. If the trust is set up correctly, the beneficiary will not risk losing eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of income or asset levels which exceed their eligibility limits.

Special needs trusts generally fall within one of two categories: self-settled or third-party trusts. The difference is based on whose assets were used to fund the trust. A self-settled trust is one that is funded with the disabled person’s own assets, such as an inheritance, a personal injury settlement or accumulated wealth. If the disabled beneficiary ever had the legal right to use the money without restriction, the trust is most likely self-settled.

On the other hand, a third-party trust is established by and funded with assets belonging to someone other than the beneficiary.

Ideally, an inheritance for the benefit of a disabled individual should be left through third-party special needs trust. Otherwise, if the inheritance is left outright to the disabled beneficiary, a trust can often be set up by a court at the request of a conservator or other family member to hold the assets and provide for the beneficiary without affecting his or her eligibility for government benefits.

The treatment and effect of a particular trust will differ according to which category the trust falls under.

A self-settled trust:

  • Must include a provision that, upon the beneficiary’s death, the state Medicaid agency will be reimbursed for the cost of benefits received by the beneficiary.
  • May significantly limit the kinds of payments the trustee can make, which can vary according to state law.
  •  May require an annual accounting of trust expenditures to the state Medicaid agency.
  • May cause the beneficiary to be deemed to have access to trust income or assets, if rules are not followed exactly, thereby jeopardizing the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI or Medicaid benefits.
  • Will be taxed as if its assets still belonged to the beneficiary.
  • May not be available as an option for disabled individuals over the age of 65.


A third-party settled special needs trust:

  • Can pay for shelter and food for the beneficiary, although these expenditures may reduce the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI payments.
  • Can be distributed to charities or other family members upon the disabled beneficiary’s death.
  • Can be terminated if the beneficiary’s condition improves and he or she no longer requires the assistance of SSI or Medicaid, and the remaining balance will be distributed to the beneficiary.
     

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